As donors prepare an international conference on the devastated nation’s future, let’s make sure all Haitians are heard.
In the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti last month, thousands of its countrymen are reversing a trend that has dominated life in developing third world countries for decades—they are migrating back to the countryside, after having flocked to the cities in a desperate search for employment. What drove their urban flight was the complex phenomenon known as globalization. A combination of policies promoted by multinational corporations from the Global North—and enforced by international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—forced third world peasants off their land and into the factories run by rich countries. No longer able to feed themselves, the populace became dependent on expensive imports and food aid that further undermined the sustainability of their agricultural sectors.
What will happen to these traumatized survivors upon their return to their roots? More importantly, who will decide? A huge donor’s conference on Haiti is scheduled to take place in March at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Throngs of governments, financial institutions and (perhaps) well-intentioned charitable groups will converge to map out a strategy for Haiti.
Who will receive the billions sure to be generated there, and for what kinds of projects? Already there has been talk of a U.S. State Department “plan” for Haiti. There are contractors lining up, salivating at the prospects of rebuilding the capital. Bill Clinton is touring the country. But where are Haitians in all of this agenda-setting?
Those who want to express solidarity with Haiti in this critical time must demand the implementation, and further elaboration, of a “human rights approach” to development. This is a policy approach mandated by international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and the United Nations Common Understanding on a Human Rights-Based Approach to Development all recognize the human right of Haitians to actively participate in decision-making about their own social and economic development.
A human-rights approach to development requires the empowerment of the Haitian people to determine their own destiny. Haitians are already organized into trade unions, peasant organizations, women’s groups and community networks. Further grassroots organizing has taken place since the earthquake, providing mutual assistance to the wounded and facilitating the peaceful distribution of aid. These community-based organizations must have a prominent place at the table when decisions are made about how resources are to be allocated.
A human-rights approach to development requires a focus on people’s basic needs. It would include the construction—using the talents of the local people—of hospitals, schools and agricultural infrastructure, focusing on the countryside, where the majority of Haitians live. A human-rights approach requires an agricultural policy that emphasizes the ability of people to feed themselves. A human-rights approach is the antithesis of the export-driven economic model that has been imposed upon developing countries by the international financial institutions, deepening the immiseration of the world’s poor.
Thanks to this unfathomable disaster, Haiti’s international loans have been “forgiven”—loans that required Haiti to pay $1 million a week in interest to wealthy countries. The history of Haiti’s “debt” to the West incurred by its audacious defeat of the French slavocracy has been well-documented in these pages. The erasure of the international debt of other third world countries, particularly in Africa, is a similar demand for justice.
When Hurricane Katrina (and U.S. government ineptitude) engulfed New Orleans, the Wall Street Journal published a “blueprint” for its rebuilding. It included proposals like ending affirmative action and annulling pro-labor laws. Racist politicians openly celebrated the fact that poor blacks were forced out of public housing. Not long afterwards, public-housing developments throughout the city, though not damaged by the storm, were torn down, their residents permanently displaced.
We must be vigilant to ensure that this does not happen to Haiti. Will people earning $3 per day see their wages further degraded in the name of development? Will rural land be turned over to foreign agribusinesses? Will Port-au-Prince be rebuilt as a first world showcase in lieu of building and sustaining affordable housing, schools and clinics for the people?
Or will Haiti be a first again? Will it repeat its glorious revolutionary history, this time reconstructing the country not along lines of color and wealth, but on the basis of the fundamental human rights of all of its citizens?
Jeanne M. Woods is the Henry F. Bonura Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola University in New Orleans, where she teaches international law and human rights. She is the author of Human Rights and the Global Marketplace: Economic, Social and Cultural Dimensions, and a forthcoming e-book, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Human Rights, and Development.
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